College football’s 2018-19 bowl season kicks off on Saturday with a showdown between two teams from the Pelican State, as Tulane meets Louisiana in Orlando for the 2018 Cure Bowl. Both of these programs appear to be on the rise after standout coaching hires in recent years. The Green Wave are bowling for the first time under third-year coach Willie Fritz, while the Ragin’ Cajuns will cap a strong debut from new coach Billy Napier with a trip to this bowl on Dec. 15.
After just missing out on a bowl trip last year, Tulane won four out of its last five games to finish the regular season at 6-6. The Green Wave claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference’s West Division title with a 5-3 mark in league play, with three of their six defeats coming by a touchdown or less. Fritz’s team fell in overtime against Wake Forest (23-17) in the opener and suffered defeats to UAB and Ohio State before a key win against Memphis in late September. Tulane reached bowl eligibility in dramatic fashion, edging Navy 29-28 thanks to a two-point conversion with just over a minute left. The Green Wave are led by a defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play in AAC games, while the ground game anchors an offense ranked sixth in the conference. Offensive coordinator Doug Ruse was let go following the finale against Navy. Alex Atkins will call the plays in this game, with former Louisiana offensive coordinator and Memphis assistant Will Hall slated to take over the full-time duties in 2019.
After three consecutive losing seasons under former coach Mark Hudspeth, new Louisiana coach Billy Napier guided the program to a 7-6 mark and Sun Belt West Division title in his first year at the helm. Napier previously worked under Nick Saban at Alabama and arrived in Lafayette after one year at Arizona State. Similar to Tulane, the Ragin’ Cajuns started slow but finished the season on a high note. Louisiana opened 1-3 but finished with six wins over its next eight contests, including victories over Arkansas State and ULM to clinch the Sun Belt West title. The Ragin’ Cajuns lost 30-19 to Appalachian State in the conference title game on Dec. 1.
Tulane holds a 22-4 series edge over Louisiana. The Green Wave won the last meeting (2016) between these two teams, but the Ragin’ Cajuns claimed victory in the 2013 New Orleans Bowl (24-21) and won the previous meeting in ’12.
Cure Bowl: Louisiana (7-6) vs. Tulane (6-6)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 1:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Tulane -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisiana’s Ground Game
The strength of Napier’s first team in Lafayette rests with a ground attack that averages 229.1 yards a game. The Ragin’ Cajuns are tied for first in the Sun Belt with an average of 5.7 yards per rush and have scored 29 times on the ground this fall. Sophomore Trey Ragas leads the way with 1,141 yards (5.8 ypc), but fellow sophomore Elijah Mitchell isn’t far behind at 951 yards. Mitchell has been more explosive (6.8 ypc) and has scored 12 times to Ragas’ eight rushing scores. Junior Raymond Calais has also pitched in 713 yards, with quarterback Andre Nunez ending the regular season with three rushing touchdowns.
In Louisiana’s seven wins this season, this offense has averaged nearly 300 rushing yards (288.4). However, in the six losses, Napier’s team managed only 159.8 on the ground. Stopping the run and forcing Nunez (or Levi Lewis) to win this game through the air has to be the priority for Tulane’s defense. The Green Wave rank second in the American Athletic Conference versus the run, limiting opponents to 152.6 yards per contest. Additionally, this group is only giving up 3.95 yards per rush. Linebacker/end Patrick Johnson and linebacker Zachery Harris will be tasked with leading the effort to limit Ragas and Mitchell on the ground. Johnson has collected 16.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks in 2018, with Harris pacing the team in tackles (87).
Louisiana’s offense leads the Sun Belt in third-down conversions, so it’s critical for Tulane to keep the Ragin’ Cajuns’ ground game contained on early downs, forcing Napier’s team into long-yardage situations.
2. Tulane’s Rushing Attack
Just like Louisiana, Tulane’s preferred method of attack on offense resides with its ground game. Coach Willie Fritz’s group enters the Cure Bowl averaging 208.3 yards a contest and 4.7 yards a rush. The one-two punch of Darius Bradwell (984 yards) and Corey Dauphine (754 yards) powers the ground game for the Green Wave, with Stephon Huderson (255) and quarterback Justin McMillan (166) also contributing. In Tulane’s six victories this season, the offense averaged 259.2 rushing yards a game. However, in the six losses, the Green Wave managed only 157.3 per contest.
On paper, Tulane’s offense has an edge against Louisiana’s defense. The Ragin’ Cajuns are giving up 210 rushing yards a contest and allowed 225 yards on the ground to Appalachian State in the Sun Belt title game. Additionally, this unit has allowed at least 223 rushing yards in three out of the last four contests in 2018.
Considering Tulane ranks 11th in the American Athletic Conference in third-down conversions, gaining yardage on first and second down is crucial. If the Green Wave stay out of long-distance situations on third downs, Louisiana will have trouble getting enough stops to win this game. On the flipside, if the Ragin’ Cajuns hold on early downs, getting McMillan into third-and-long is a favorable path to victory.
3. Which QB Makes the Most Plays? And Who Wins the Turnover Battle?
It’s no secret where this game is going to be won or lost. Both teams like to run the ball, so getting stops on early downs and forcing the offenses out of their comfort zone is a priority for both defenses. But in a close game, quarterback play and turnover battle (as usual) is going to be a key piece of this matchup.
Which quarterback can deliver enough plays to keep the defense off balance or connect on a couple of big passes to stretch the field? Jonathan Banks opened the year as Tulane’s starter but was replaced by LSU transfer Justin McMillan for the final five matchups. McMillan completed 50 percent of his passes for 1,159 yards and nine touchdowns to just three picks. After throwing for just 92 yards in a win over Tulsa and 61 in a victory over USF, McMillan torched East Carolina for 372 yards and posted 291 yards in the finale against Navy. The junior doesn’t have a deep group of receivers (statistically), but Darnell Mooney (21.0 ypc), Terren Encalade (16.3 ypc) and Jabril Clewis (16.9 ypc) is a capable trio to attack a Louisiana secondary that ranks sixth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense and has allowed 11 passes of 40 yards or more this fall.
Louisiana’s passing game has been more productive than Tulane’s this year, as Nunez has tossed 19 touchdowns to 12 picks and connected on 64.4 percent of his throws. Levi Lewis has attempted a pass in all 13 contests this season and has contributed seven scores to just one interception. Ja’Marcus Bradley (10 TD catches), Ryheem Malone (41 catches) and Jarrod Jackson (18 catches) round out the top statistical options at receiver. The Green Wave rank sixth in the AAC in pass efficiency defense but have allowed just seven passes of 40 yards or more this season.
With a matchup that’s fairly even on paper, it should be no surprise Tulane and Louisiana aren’t far apart in the turnover battle. The Green Wave have forced 17 turnovers and lost 17, recording an even margin going into the bowl game. The Ragin’ Cajuns are minus-three after 13 contests, as Napier’s team has generated only 13 takeaways this season.
Not much separates these two teams. In Athlon’s pre-bowl 130 team rankings, Louisiana is No. 82 and Tulane ranks No. 85 nationally. Additionally, both programs bring similar approaches to Orlando. Expect the ground game to be the focal point for both offenses, as a few plays in the passing game and stops on defense could be the deciding factor. While Louisiana’s offense has been more productive on the scoreboard this season, the guess here is Tulane’s defense will be the difference in the game. Both teams will land a few punches on the ground, but the Green Wave get just enough stops in the fourth quarter to earn the program’s first bowl victory since 2002.